Authors: Billie Livingston
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Chick at the Back of the Church
Going Down Swinging
Cease to Blush
For Sweet Timothy
Before I Would Ever Hurt You
ORD CAME BACK FROM THE BATHROOM
and sat in the booth again. “I’m turning myself in.” His smile was lopsided. He scratched the back of his neck, and blinked rapidly as if trying to clear his head. “What’s the difference between locusts and grasshoppers?”
Rain fell hard behind me, battering the café’s front window. The place was more diner than café, one of East Vancouver’s kitschy attempts to recapture the ’50s.
A waitress fishtailed by, raising her coffee pot. I pushed my cup toward her and then waited until she moved on. When no words came, I shook my head.
“The brown ones. They’re locusts if they have the short antennas? Antenn-
? It was bad. They were all over the kitchen, some jumped onto the stove and burned up right there. All over the curtains—in the dirty dishes even, floating in the water.”
I had been finding patterns in the table’s Formica, wondering again if I should have called someone. I looked him in the eyes now. “Am I the first person you phoned?”
“Everybody’s hiding, but you.”
“You’ve got your own apartment now.” He gave me that crooked grin again. “First Bernam in the phone book:
for Amy.” He reached for my fingers.
I slipped my hands under the table.
Wincing, he flicked grey eyes at the ceiling fan and then back. “I know I haven’t been really
um, lately. But you and me are pals, aren’t we? You understand even when I’m an asshole, taking off like that into the woods. No phone, no toilets, no nothin’.”
Looking at his face some more, I tried to picture his girlfriend, Ruth, in that wooden kitchen of theirs.
No phone, no toilets, no nothin’
. I wondered at my lack of fear.
In the space between my big and second toe, I have a tiny brown dot. Not a freckle, it’s too dark, almost black. Had it ever since I was born.
My father pointed it out. “Jesus, look at that, Peg, she’s got Gord’s dot. Same place and everything. If you two didn’t hold each other in such low regard, I’d wonder.”
Mom shook her head. “If she got his brains, we’re in for it.”
That dot though, it bonded Gord and me. My father said that for Gord, it was love at first sight on account of our shared peculiarity. When Gord saw the dot, he told my father that he would understand me when no one else could. And vice versa. He called us Dotters.
My mother talked to me about Gord once. It was a rare night in Vancouver, one too hot to lie in bed, and the two of us were at the kitchen table, drunk with sleeplessness.
, she told me
. In the head.
She and Gord had had another one of their verbal slap-fights earlier that night, over dinner. “It’s none of your business,” she had railed. “You sit there shovelling in my food and—and then shitting your opinions all over the house.”
My father choked on his laughter. “Christ, nearly lost that beer out my nose.”
Gord thumped his brother’s back, laughing along.
Later, sitting at the kitchen table with me, each of us clutching our glass of iced tea as if hoarding it, her tone was almost pleading. “Everyone laughs it off. But it’s not funny. He has his
family. He keeps shoving his nose into ours while his own wife and sons languish on the other side of town.”
“He was a year ahead of you in school, right? Did he ever hit on you?”
“Oh for god’s sake.” She looked away and sighed. “He liked me. He was—I mean I liked him too but he was needy—pathetically so. Your dad told him to bloody well get on with things, make his own fun.”
“So he was hitting on you.”
“I was always in love with your father. I’m just trying to explain to you that I don’t have the same sort of camaraderie with Gord that you do. He’s an irresponsible idiot.”
The first time I ever heard the phrase
if he had a brain he’d be dangerous,
it was my mother talking about Gord.
I was ten years old when the principal of the school called my mother in and laid out his concern before the both of us: “She waited until he was alone and then slammed the boy face-first into the schoolyard gravel. I would call that abnormally aggressive.”
My mother looked at me. “Is that what happened?”
“Sort of. But he asked for it.”
“Irregardless, young lady,” the principal said, “you don’t bloody another child because of words. Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you.”
My mother turned to him. Her expression soured slightly. “Well, he must have done something for her to have
him, as you put it.” She looked back at me.
“I was on the swing,” I explained, “like, a few days ago. I had on a skirt and that kid, Brian, was standing there watching me go back and forth.
, all of a sudden, when I swung up, like, with my legs out, he put his hand up my skirt. Right on my underpants.”
“He touched your underpants?” My mother jabbed a look at the principal. “So you pushed him.”
“No, cuz he took off. So I waited. Then yesterday, I was late from recess and that Brian kid was still outside too, and so I ran up behind. And I got him.”
A brief satisfaction showed in my mother’s eyes. She faced the principal. “I think that shed some light on things.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Bernam,” he said, shaking his head, “but you don’t actually believe that. Children, in my experience, do not wait to retaliate. They are simple creatures.”
“My child isn’t
“There is no such word as
.” She picked up her purse. “Looks like you’ve got a sexual harassment charge on your hands.”
When we got home Dad was at the kitchen table with his brother, having a beer. My mother scowled.
“Hello, fellow Dotter.” Gord noogied my head.
I giggled and squirmed and jumped in his lap, took a sip from his bottle.
Mom plucked the beer from my hands. “For god’s sake,” she said, glaring at Gord.
“Oh, Peg, calm down; she had a sip of beer—not like it’s Scotch.” My father grabbed her around the waist and winked at me. “Wait’ll we get you into the Scotch, Amy, then you can start coming to poker night.”
“Not funny,” my mother said and removed his hand. “This is exactly the problem, this lackadaisical—
!” She told me to go change out of my school clothes.
Soon as I’d rounded the corner, she started in. It never seemed to occur to them how close my room was,
that I might as well have been sitting under the kitchen table. Truth be told, though, I was only half listening until Gord hollered, “She did it cuz I told her to do it that way. No little sonofabitch sticks his hand up my kid’s skirt.”
She is not your kid
!” my mother roared.
“She’s my godchild. She’s my niece, for chrissake.”
She told him that part of my problem was him and his idiocy, his need to gratify every stupid urge that came upon him, and that he encouraged the same in me.
Gord bellowed, “Chrissake, she’s defending herself against a would-be
What would you—?”
“You couldn’t suggest she tell a teacher. Or her
!” she fumed. I could imagine her eyes bugging. “He needed stitches! He’s ten!”
“I’m teaching her to stand up for herself.” Gord’s chair legs rubbed the floor as he pushed his seat back and stood. “A man wrongs a woman—she should have his goddamn head on a platter.”
There was silence.
My mother whispered something.
“That’s enough,” my father said evenly.
“Why are you here? Why are you
She sounded as though she might cry.
“Okay,” Dad said, his voice low and sturdy. “Take it easy.”
I heard Gord’s approaching footfalls over my mother’s strained whisper. “
take it easy?”
My father’s voice lowered more, his tone easing into that hopeful lovey voice he used just before he wrapped
his arms around her shoulders to keep her body from thrashing.
A moment later Gord was in my doorway. “Dotter.” He saluted.
I stared sombrely from my bed, threw a half-assed wave his way.
He pulled at the toe of my sock. “Is it true you beat a man within an inch of his life?”
My eyes rolled. “What a friggin’ baby that kid is.”
Gord sat and hoisted his back against the wall beside me. “Your mother’s just jealous. She wishes she had the guts you do.”
We each looked at our feet.
“Damn right,” he said. “Little bastard’ll think twice before he comes near you again.”
“You should try not to piss her off so much.”
Shortly before I graduated high school, my parents went to San Francisco for the long weekend. A second honeymoon, my father said. I drove them to the airport and my father attempted to get us all singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in rounds. Too early in the morning for that, I was glad to dump them at Departures.
That night, I woke at 2:03 a.m., according to the neon of my clock, and saw dim light under the door. A little dazed, I wandered into the hall.
The house felt like its same old self, no strange breath in the air. I knew before I named it exactly who would be sitting in the kitchen.
He turned when he heard my shuffle, his eyes a little red and puffy. “Hey, Dotter, up already?” he slurred, and then shook his head, looking embarrassed. “Did I wake you, Amy? Sorry. I let myself in with the key outside there.”
I headed to the stove and put the kettle on. “So?”
He sipped his beer, stared into his hands. “Ah, you don’t want to hear this, all my shit.”
I leaned against the stove. “Your shit’s my shit.”
Smiling softly to his bottle, he wiped his forehead. He held his breath and let it go. “Lydia says she’s not happy.”
I took two mugs out, put tea bags into them. I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to be my aunt. He rarely spoke of her. He rarely spoke of my cousins either. It was as if he wanted to keep them separate from this part of his family. As if they were his job and he didn’t want to talk shop.
“And then this morn—well, yesterday morning—the company asked me if I wanted to transfer to Calgary. Promotion and another fifteen grand a year.”